Unwinnability and war: Nuclear weapons division

Attentive JWN readers will know that recently I’ve been doing some thinking about the proposition that over recent years, foreign wars may well have become unwinnable.
Of course, once enough people become convinced that foreigns wars are unwinnable, then they also should become unwageable… and the nations of the world would have to strengthen all their other, non-military ways of resolving differences, and cut back on military spending considerably…
I note that while my own analysis of the unwinnability question is based mainly on the US’s experience in Iraq since 2003 and Israel’s in Lebanon in 2006, Bill the spouse has also suggested that the unwinnability of foreign wars can be identified much earlier than that, including back to Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Or why not his 1980 invasion of Iran, perhaps?
Be that as it may… One response I’ve received from some people to the proposition about unwinnability has been, “Well maybe so… but you’ve only been talking about non-nuclear wars… so if it’s those that are unwinnable doesn’t that just increase the incentive for states to acquire nuclear weapons?”
Well, I’ve done a bunch of thinking about nuclear weapons, too, in various contexts over the years; much of it back in the 1980s when for a few years I was a member of something called the Washington Council on Non-Proliferation. (Does that still exist? This report says not.) So I kept that “nuclear” objection to my unwinnability thesis tucked into the back of my mind. And last week, when I saw a notice that the New America Foundation was sponsoring a talk on the topic of “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima,” I hurried along there.
The presenter was Ward Wilson, an independent scholar who recently won a prize for the essay he wrote on this topic– which has also, incidentally, been published here (PDF).
And here, btw, is Wilson’s own blog post recording the event, which has a link to the video record of the discussion.
If you’re interested in nuclear weapons, or particularly in nuclear disarmament, it is definitely worthwhile watching the video that’s accessible there, which is posted on YouTube and runs 1 hour 16 mins.
Ward made a handful of extremely thought-provoking and useful arguments that basically attacked the notion that nuclear weapons have military utility.
His first argument was based on a close re-reading of the historical record of the Japanese government’s decision-making in the days leading up to and right after Truman’s use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He took on the commonly-told “story” in the US is that the use of the A-bombs (while highly regrettable etc etc) did nonetheless succeed in persuading the Japanese government to issue a speedy notice of surrender— and thereby also saved the lives of the thousands of US servicemen who could otherwise have been expected to die in a continuation of the island-hopping advance toward Tokyo. Ward’s conclusion, using the Japanese record, is that it was Russia’s entry into the war in Asia, which happened a few days after the bombing of Hiroshima, that was far more important in persuading– or as he says, “coercing”– the Japan authorities to surrender.
He used another line of argument, too, one based on a number of technical military considerations. What was aimed at with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said, was city destruction, with the aim that seeing the destruction of entire cities would so “shock” (and perhaps also “awe”?) Japan’s national command authorities that they would immediately capitulate and sue for surrender. But, he argued, Japan had already seen worse destruction of cities in the weeks preceding Hiroshima, achieved through the US firebombing of cities. And moreover, throughout history, he argued, the destruction of cities has not been strategically decisive.
(I hope readers here are seeing the connections and parallels with my own writing about the Israeli bombing of Beirut, etc.)
Regarding the military utility of nuclear weapons, he said,

    Basically, there are two problems with nuclear weapons: they are too big, and they leave poison wherever they are used.

He drew a great comparison with chariots, which he depicted as kind of the “shock and awe” weapons of their day. He said that, while they may have “shocked and awed” the peasants of the societies where they were used (while also, I might add, amply expressing and feeding the grandiosity of the military leaders who raced around in them) still, their actual military utility was extremely low.
To illustrate this, he showed a bas-relief of a charioteer trying to use a bow and arrow as he rode into battle. The guy, using a bow and arrow to be able to project his ordnance against the enemy, had to use both hands to do that– and had left the reins of the chariot tied around his waist. “So essentially,” Ward said, “he was out of control.”
A great analogy.
And the reason the charioteer chose to use a bow and arrow was that he could not easily or effectively use a sword or spear against his opponents, given that having two horses pull the chariot gave it considerable width, keeping him from getting up close to the foe. (The size issue, there.)
The other great analogy that Ward used for nuclear weapons was the idea– expressed at around 53 minutes into the YouTube video– that we should think of nuclear weapons as being like hanging a bottle of nitroglycerine on a string in the family’s kitchen, as a way of “deterring” the entry or activities of burglars. “Just the idea that you are fearful as you and your family creep around the bottle hanging there doesn’t prove that it’s effective!”
Anyway, it was a great presentation; and the article and video are great, too. I am so glad I went. The only troubling thing that happened was that there was a smart, well-informed Japanese scholar in the audience, too– a woman who grew up in Hiroshima and teaches at a Japanese university, who is here in the US for the summer… And I think that Ward and the (also male) chair of the session treated her rather harshly at the end for trying to finish the entirely reasonable point she was trying to make about the US public and leaders preferring to believe that the bombing of Hiroshima had had military/strategic utility because of their reluctance to face up to the horrendous humanitarian disaster it had caused. Honestly, I can’t imagine a Holocaust survivor ever being treated in such a fashion in a public gathering; and I found their accusations that she was too “emotional” (or “passionate”) quite unwarranted.
But in general, as I said, a really helpful presentation. Ward made a whole bunch more good points there that I haven’t had time to write about here.

16 thoughts on “Unwinnability and war: Nuclear weapons division

  1. Joe M.

    sorry that this is not directly related to this post, but according to an article i read in Haaretz the other day, the new Hamas crackdown in Gaza against Fatah also targeted your friend, Ziad Abu Amr. Do you have any information on this?
    (at the bottom)
    “Dozens of Fatah supporters were rounded up, said Ibrahim Abu Naja, a prominent Fatah leader in Gaza. Abu Naja said Hamas police also raided offices and institutions belonging to Fatah overnight. Abu Naja’s own office was raided on Saturday.
    The offices of independent lawmaker Ziad Abu Amr and of Zakariya al-Agha, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, were among those targeted. Another senior Fatah leader, Abdel Rahman Hamad, fled his home amid concerns he would be arrested, his family said.”

  2. alex

    foreign wars may well have become unwinnable
    The unsuccessful examples you give are those of the aggressor. Defensive successes may be had – Kuwait was liberated not through its own efforts (though you may not like the consequences).

  3. menno hert

    Wars may be unwinnable, but they might still be profitable. This 2004 article from The New York Times about Lockheed gives some insight in the amazing state of mind of most leaders of countries and corporations nowadays:
    Over the last decade, Lockheed, the nation’s largest military contractor, has built a formidable information-technology empire that now stretches from the Pentagon to the post office. It sorts your mail and totals your taxes. It cuts Social Security checks and counts the United States census. It runs space flights and monitors air traffic. To make all that happen, Lockheed writes more computer code than Microsoft.
    Of course, Lockheed, based in Bethesda, Md., is best known for its weapons, which are the heart of America’s arsenal. It builds most of the nation’s warplanes. It creates rockets for nuclear missiles, sensors for spy satellites and scores of other military and intelligence systems. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency might have difficulty functioning without the contractor’s expertise.
    But in the post-9/11 world, Lockheed has become more than just the biggest corporate cog in what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. It is increasingly putting its stamp on the nation’s military policies, too
    continued here

  4. Helena

    Alex, I certainly take yr points about defensive wars and about Kuwait having been, in fact, “liberated” (i.e., its sovereign status as per international law restored) through the actions of overwhelmingly non-Kuwaiti forces.
    I guess from that POV, I was thinking of the liberation of Kuwait by allied forces as not being a “foreign” war but a defensive war. It’s a question oif terminology, really. The opposite of defensive war ought to be aggressive war, I guess. But to accuse the perpetrators of illegitimate wars of “aggression” may (or may not) be politically unhelpful.
    So maybe the key variable should best be identified as legitimacy/illegitimacy.
    Menno, your point re profitability is very well made. Juan Cole and many others have drawn on descriptions of war as being handy mechanisms to shovel massive amounts of taxpayer money into the coffers of well-placed private corporations. The present war(s) just carry this longstanding practice to an unprecedented height.
    Many taxpayers might not worry too much about this if they had an idea that the wars in question could be “won”,which in the case of foreign wars, back in the 19th century, would have given the victor the ability to skim massive booty off the conquered society. Hence, a great investment! But if they can’t be “won” in this or any other sense… well why the heck wage them??
    Joe, I don’t know. Does anyone else? (My impression from the news reports was that it was Ziad’s offices that were raided but no indication that he was there.

  5. Frank al Irlandi

    Dear Helena
    You may find this description of the work of Project Daniel, with a passing mention of Project Samson of interest and to be directly on topic.
    It is delightfully in counterpoint to Mr Gates piece in the same publication where he essentially says that he needs a war with Iran like a hole in the head.
    Beres piece is a welcome piee of rational and logical anlysis to ballance the ravings of Benny Morris.

  6. bb

    1991. Kuwait. Iraq/Saddam forced to withdraw. Kuwait government restored.
    1999. Kosovo. Yugoslavia/Serbia/Milosevic forced to withdraw.
    Serbia now a democracy.
    2003. Saddam defeated. Iraq now a democracy.
    So, on the contrary, when the US uses its power against third or second world countries, it wins every time.
    I would suggest that the reason Israel has not “won” is simply because world opinion doesn’t allow it to use its full power?

  7. alex

    I would suggest that the reason Israel has not “won” is simply because world opinion doesn’t allow it to use its full power?
    bb’s attitude is truly remarkable. There is no “victory” for Israel to obtain. They might defeat the Syrian army, the Egyptian army, the Jordanian army, even Hizbullah. Any territory gained would have to be given back in a few months.
    It is the perfect example of the uselessness of war.

  8. Shirin

    2003. Saddam defeated. Iraq now a democracy.
    LOOOOOOOLOLOLOLOL! Oh, yes! Some “democracy”. And what a pleasant place it is to live, too. So, pleasant that 5-6 million Iraqis have voted with their feet, and another million or so have left not only the country, but life itself.
    I would suggest that the reason Israel has not “won” is simply because world opinion doesn’t allow it to use its full power?
    In other words, Israel has not been allowed to destroy enough things or kill enough people.
    What a sickeningly bloodthirsty point of view.

  9. Eurosabra

    Certainly Israel’s incapacity to be a large, assimilationist empire as the more fanatical proponents of Canaanism advocated means that there is always a “Day After” any great Israeli victory, as her foes decide that they can bide their time and prepare and launch the war that Israel only needs to lose ONCE to be extinguished for another two millennia. Power projection invariably means getting enough people to acquiesce to your agenda, or convincing them that you are sufficiently without restraint that they must acquiesce. In short, SYRIA’s success in Lebanon (1983-2008) is the example of an unrestrained power that could compel acquiescence, which is why Lebanon threatens Israel and not Syria, despite the putative enmity of many Lebanese for the Assad regime. “Kiss the hand you dare not bite.”
    Oddly, keeping Israeli power in the wings and focused on military superiority over an actual army was what brought the grudging peace with Egypt, which is still Israel’s greatest foreign policy success, at least until the Ikhwan throws a new generation of Egyptians too young to remember ’73 into the meat grinder.
    At least formally, IDF doctrine is mission-oriented, meaning destruction is (at least doctrinally) restrained by the principles of legality, proportionality, and appropriateness of targeting as enshrined in the laws and customs of war. This is still (thank G-d) statecraft and not “Tamut Nafshi im HaPleshtim”. Halacha is different from IDF doctrine, of course. I do not think much of those of Israel’s foes who make Sharia the basis of their treatment of the living and the dead, however, and I fear the repercussions of trying to run mechanized combined-arms forces according to Halacha. (Non-Jewish Israelis, for example, skew the equation a bit.) OTOH, maybe Halutz could have benefited from “Thou Art The Man”, etc.

  10. Christiane

    I find your theory very interesting and I think that it can be demonstrated.
    I’d add the Russian wars, for example its failed occupation of Afghanistan as another proof.
    Concerning the legitimacy/illegitimacy of wars, well, I’m not sure of the argument. I think that the Afghanistan war waged by the US after 9/11 wasn’t legitimate. They bombed civilians already exhausted by the war with the Russians in order to get at terrorists which they couldn’t get, because you don’t fight terrorism with an airforce and the military. I think that the US extorted the so-called legitimacy of its bellicose project against Afghanistan from the UNSC, partly due to 9/11, but the free stamp of the US doesn’t make this war morally legitimate in my eyes. So I still prefer your first approach of foreign aggressive wars.

  11. menno hert

    Many taxpayers might not worry too much about this if they had an idea that the wars in question could be “won”,which in the case of foreign wars, back in the 19th century, would have given the victor the ability to skim massive booty off the conquered society. Hence, a great investment! But if they can’t be “won” in this or any other sense… well why the heck wage them??
    But it is not the taxpayer who wages these wars; he/she only pays for them. Taxpayers are only needed for elections, in their capacity of voters, and that doesn’t seem too big a hurdle for the “powers that be”. The relationship between politicians and voters is like the relationship between commercial TV stations and the masses who watch TV.
    TV stations need people to watch their programs in order to sell commercial space to their clients, which are the corporations who want to advertise their products. In the same way the politicians need the taxpayers to elect them, after which they can continue to mould their policies to the wishes of the big corporations, who not only have immense lobbying power, but have taken over huge chunks of the state itself (Lockheed is only one example. An excellent analyses of this phenomenon is given by Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine”).
    In the end, the taxpayer (the few that vote, that is) will oblige. They haven’t much choice, of course. They can choose between McCain and Obama, who both have made it clear that they will spend more on the military, continue the occupation of Iraq in one way or another, and expand the war in Afghanistan by sending more troops and equipment (another big boost for Lockheed’s bottom line, by the way).

  12. Shirin

    They can choose between McCain and Obama…
    Or they can refuse to choose between McCain and Obama, and select or write in someone who shares their principles and standards.
    Or they can refuse to take part in the charade at all, and stay home.

  13. Watson

    Whether or not the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were militarily useful, they were attacks on non-combatants, and therefore acts of terrorism. The US needs to acknowledge that those who resort to terrorism are not two-dimensional ‘evil-doers’, and adopt a more nuanced response to contemporary terrorism.
    As to the ‘liberation of Kuwait’, rather than restoring the hereditary monarchy, Uncle Sam should have insisted on holding elections. US support for the Gulf despots makes a mockery of our claimed commitment to democracy.

  14. Salah

    1991. Kuwait. Iraq/Saddam forced to withdraw. Kuwait government restored.
    Yes, Kuwait government resorted by hiring US Military to fight Saddam military isn’t that a matter of fact?
    Just for a second imagine if Kuwait very poor country did US will be interested?
    “… I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. I know you need funds. We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.
    “I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 60’s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via Klibi or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly. With regard to all of this, can I ask you to see how the issue appears to us?”
    April Glaspie
    In September of 1987, when the State Department had submitted Glaspie’s name to the White House and Congress for approval as the next ambassador to Iraq, some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not been pleased. True, her record was impressive. Glaspie had won several State Department awards for political reporting from Egypt and from Kuwait, and a Superior Honor award for her work in Damascus. But, as one former Senate staff member told me, Iraq in 1987 was the only Arab country fighting a major war, and it had the most brutal and difficult regime in the Arab world, and yet the State Department was “pushing hard” a nominee who had never before been tested as an ambassador—for a job where, as another staff member now puts it, “one’s reporting skills are less important than one’s representing skills.”
    Btw, Helena did not like my comment I made she blocked it.Each time I have two links in my comments my post hold for Helena approval?
    I don’t know if my comments make troubles here?

  15. Helena

    Salah, it’s not I who blocks the comments with multiple hyperlinks in, it’s the spam-blocker on the blogging software, which sadly is always necessary.
    But you should know that I try to process your comments (and those of other bona-fide posters) and get them published on the blog as fast as I can.

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